- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
Rivalry weeks are a lot like “Fast and Furious” movies. There’s often huge amounts of animosity among the stars. The plots make absolutely no sense. And most significantly, there are no bad ones, just varying amounts of bloodshed and pyrotechnics.
The 2020 installment was essentially the “Tokyo Drift” of rivalry weeks — many big names not participating, a rather lackluster outing — but 2021 was something different. It was drama and heartbreak. It was heroism. It was the underdog finally achieving greatness. It was the villain coming back from the dead. It was Oscar bait. It had everything.
And like all great rivalry weeks, the twists and turns of this one were entirely unexpected.
In The Game, Jim Harbaugh finally peeled the monkey off his back, as Michigan’s defense held Ohio State to a season low in points and yardage, and the Wolverines’ ground game ran for miles.
In the Iron Bowl, Auburn nearly pulled off the impossible, only to see Bryce Young claw his way down the field for a game-tying touchdown, then win in overtime.
At Bedlam, it was absolute chaos — from defensive touchdowns to special teams disasters to two late stands by the Oklahoma State defense, which delivered the final stake through the heart of an Oklahoma team that had miraculously survived one nail-biter after another this season.
We begin every rivalry week by throwing the records out the window, as was agreed upon in the Camp David accords of 1978, but this still felt like some delirious fiction.
This season has had but one true certainty: The Georgia defense. The Bulldogs stomped on little brother Georgia Tech as expected, and they wrapped the regular season having allowed just eight offensive touchdowns. For some perspective, FBS defenses have allowed that many in a single game 30 times this year. But there was a ray of hope to stop Georgia’s Death Star. It was the Ohio State offense, behind C.J. Stroud and TreVeyon Henderson and a trio of ridiculously talented receivers. A week ago, the Buckeyes embarrassed Michigan State, and the narrative was set. It’s just that Harbaugh didn’t read that narrative. (He only listens to Nicholas Sparks books on tape.)
A year ago, Michigan fans were ready to run Harbaugh out of town, a big-name coach who couldn’t win a big game. Now, the Wolverines have halted an eight-game losing streak to that team down south, and they’re but a single win over Iowa away from a berth in the College Football Playoff. They did it not with a big-play passing game or an up-tempo offense, but with an old-fashioned ground-and-pound attack that racked up 297 yards and six touchdowns on the ground against an overwhelmed Buckeyes defense. They did it on the strength of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, the most ferocious pass rushing tandem in the country, who harassed Stroud throughout the game, racking up four sacks between them. They did it with a coach who thinks sunglasses and khakis are a fashion statement, chickens are nervous birds and the sixth time’s the charm. The Wolverines were going to beat Ohio State “or die trying,” Harbaugh said this week, and both he and the Wolverines live to fight another day. Michigan is a nostalgic throwback in an era of stylized excitement — right down to singing “Mr. Brightside” when it was over.
Nick Saban made his own headlines this week, calling out his “self-absorbed” fans for dismissing so many close wins as something beneath the Tide’s expected brilliance. But after Young drove the Tide 97 yards on 12 plays and floated a pinpoint throw over Ja’Corey Brooks’ shoulder in the final minute of the Iron Bowl, no Alabama fans will be complaining. It was magic. That Auburn’s Tank Bigsby blew an opportunity to run down the clock on the Tigers’ final drive or that Bryan Harsin never considered going for two in the first overtime offers ample room for criticism on The Plains, but what’s true is Young’s place in Iron Bowl lore was predestined. Whether the latest close win was fodder for critics or actual ammunition for the committee remains to be seen, but for one brilliant Saturday afternoon, it didn’t matter.
What to make of Bedlam? Oklahoma State scored on a 100-yard kick return, gave up a safety, allowed a scoop-and-score TD, missed a field goal and scored after Oklahoma muffed a punt inside the 5. It’s rare Mike Gundy can wear a turtleneck under a sweater and that’s not even close to the ugliest part of an Oklahoma State game. And yet, it all somehow worked. The Sooners had beaten the Pokes 16 of the past 18, including six straight, but this year, things were different. The Oklahoma State defense has been a revelation all season, arguably the best unit in the country after the Dawgs’ D, and despite being left for dead a half-dozen times this season — including midway through the third quarter Saturday — Oklahoma State has a real shot at the playoff, too. When Collin Oliver, splayed on the ground, grabbed Caleb Williams ankles and ended the Sooners’ final comeback attempt, another domino fell.
Through seven seasons, the College Football Playoff was defined by four teams: Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma. At least three won’t be in this year’s playoff, and Alabama is hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Who would’ve guessed?
It’s fitting that this ridiculous season began with Clemson and Georgia slugging each other into oblivion in a game that didn’t include an offensive touchdown. It was a precursor for what this season has become — a year destined to be different, not defined by elite QBs or offensive fireworks or the same blue bloods who’ve owned the sport for the past decade. From Georgia to Oklahoma State, Michigan to Cincinnati, it’s been a year for the old-school, for the physically punishing ground games and the heavyweight defenses. It’s been ugly at times, but perhaps, as a mid-2000s alt-rock band once sang, that’s just been the price we pay when destiny is calling, and when we open our eyes, we’ll see a whole new college football world awaits.
Bad house guests
It’s been a wild year for fans storming the field, from Kansas fans partying after narrowly escaping an FCS opponent in Week 1 to UMass fans rushing onto the turf after beating winless UConn.
But Rivalry Week is an altogether different animal, and so Washington State and Virginia Tech fans took it up a notch.
On Friday, the Cougars scored a mammoth win over Washington in the Apple Cup — and out came the fans onto the field. Only, it was Washington’s field. The visitor field-storming immediately joined the pantheon of great moments of celebrating behind enemy lines, right up there with Baker Mayfield planting the flag at the Horseshoe or that time the kids at Valley kidnapped Screech before the big cheerleading competition at Bayside on “Saved by the Bell.”
Not to be outdone, Virginia Tech’s fans stormed the field at Scott Stadium after the Hokies toppled rival Virginia for the 17th time in 18 years, despite firing their coach two weeks ago. Afterward, Hokies fans raided Virginia’s fridge, trashed the living room and crashed on the couch. Don’t wake them up too early Sunday. It was a long night.
Rivalry Week rundown
Not every Rivalry Week game has playoff implications, but they all matter. Let’s check in on some of the biggest games that didn’t upend the committee’s rankings.
The Land Grant trophy
Amid heavy snow, Kenneth Walker III ran for 138 yards and a TD, Drew Beesley tormented Sean Clifford, and despite his hefty new contract, Mel Tucker apparently couldn’t afford a nice hat to keep warm during the game. Either way, Michigan State dumped Penn State 30-27 to get to 10 wins and earn the title of the best team that wasn’t Michigan or Ohio State in their division.
The Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe
The most played rivalry in college football is the one between Wisconsin and Minnesota, and several of the fans who tuned in for the 2021 edition were still awake when it ended with a 23-13 Gophers win. Graham Mertz was just 21-of-38 for 171 yards and an interception in the loss, which cost the Badgers a trip to the Big Ten title game. On the upside, he’s already designing a super cool new logo using comic sans and 2022 is definitely going to be his year.
Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate
It’s no surprise that Georgia won this one easily. The good news for Georgia Tech is no one was so demoralized that they gave up on their football dreams and became an English major. The Yellow Jackets finished with three wins for the third straight season, losing their past two by a combined score of 100-0.
The Palmetto Bowl
Imagine a team that gave No. 1 UGA by far its toughest test of the year, won five straight to end the season, topped 30 points in each of those games, and had one of the most dominant defenses in the country. Pretty good team, right? Nah. Huge disappointment. That’s 2021 Clemson.
The Territorial Cup
Arizona State threw for just 86 yards but still won 38-15 over Arizona and won this year’s award for the most meh team in the country. Was Arizona State good? Meh. Were they bad? Meh. Should Herm Edwards get fired? Meh. Absolutely nothing about this team inspires a strong opinion.
The Hot Chicken Trophy
We don’t actually know what the Tennessee-Vanderbilt rivalry is called, but everything is good with a little hot sauce on it. Tennessee was a 20-point favorite in the first half of this game and led 24-0 just before the break, but Vandy threw a 56-yard TD as time expired. As bad beats go, there’s nothing quite like getting demoralized by Vandy.
The Land of Lincoln Trophy
Illinois demolished Northwestern 47-14. It was a solid first season in Champaign for Bret Beilema, and the Illini finished a respectable 5-7. Northwestern, on the other hand, followed up its trip to the Big Ten championship game in 2020 with a horrific 3-9 campaign that included seven losses by 14 or more. Also, Lincoln was born in Kentucky.
The Governor’s Cup
In Kentucky, there are only four sports achievements that really matter: The Derby, the Final Four, the Governor’s Cup and, of course, seeing how much they can offload a bottle of Blanton’s on eBay for to some sucker in New York. Mark Stoops has owned at least one of those competitions, winning the Governor’s Cup for the third straight year and, in the process, gets Kentucky to 10 wins on the season.
The Legends Trophy
Notre Dame secured another easy win, and with Ohio State’s loss and Alabama’s shaky performance, the door certainly seems open for the Irish to make the playoff. Meanwhile, Stanford finishes 3-9 after Saturday’s 45-14 beatdown by the Irish, but it’s OK because no one in Silicon Valley is expected to actually have a stable track record of success. It’s about data collection.
The Seven-OT Cup
Ed Orgeron’s career at LSU came to an end (at least until he returns as the chair of the department of crawfish studies) but the Tigers gave their coach a fitting send-off with a nine-play, 85-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes of action against Texas A&M. A once-promising season for the Aggies now includes four losses (and a win over Alabama, which counts for, what, three wins?) and LSU salvaged a miserable campaign by winning its final two (after a three-point loss to Alabama, which counts for at least a win and a half) to get bowl eligible. Still, it didn’t go seven overtimes, so it’s not close to the best version of this game.
The Big Ten’s Mistake Bowl
Maryland thrashed Rutgers 40-16 in a game that determined that, no, big East Coast markets don’t really matter that much.
Championship Week preview
The regular season is in the books. Next up: Conference title games. So, who wins? We’ve got your early predictions.
SEC matchup: Georgia Bulldogs vs. Alabama Crimson Tide
Keys to the game: Alabama’s offensive line has been shaky throughout the season as evidenced in the Iron Bowl, with Auburn racking up seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. If Bama’s line looks as shaky against Georgia, it’s entirely possible Jordan Davis will simply inhale Bryce Young like a Varsity chili dog.
Who will win: It’s an interesting twist of fate that Stetson Bennett, Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey aren’t just the names of our financial advisor, general contractor and life insurance salesman (respectively) but also the offensive keys to a big Georgia win in the SEC title game.
Big Ten matchup: Iowa Hawkeyes vs. Michigan Wolverines
Keys to the game: For Michigan, Cade McNamara will need to turn in a better performance than he did against Ohio State (159 yards and an INT) as Iowa’s stout defense focuses on shutting down the run. For Iowa, figuring out that it’s possible to move the ball forward on the field offensively would be huge.
Who will win: It’s going to be a tight, low-scoring affair ultimately decided in Michigan’s favor when, in lieu of normal overtime rules, Jim Harbaugh beats Kirk Ferentz in a milk-chugging contest.
Big 12 matchup: Oklahoma State Cowboys vs. Baylor Bears
Keys to the game: Baylor didn’t have starting QB Gerry Bohanon for its must-win game against Texas A&M, but the Bears survived 27-24 behind 117 yards on the ground from Abram Smith. Baylor’s ground game is its strength, but it’ll be a tough task to run on Oklahoma State’s elite defense.
Who will win: Oklahoma State, but the Cowboys will still somehow open next season ranked lower than Texas.
ACC matchup: Wake Forest Demon Deacons vs. Pittsburgh Panthers
Keys to the game: Like Samson, Kenny Pickett derives his strength from his hair, which is gorgeous and flowing. This follows Trevor Lawrence, who won the past three ACC championships. Yes, Wake has had a special season, getting to 10 wins for just the second time in program history with Saturday’s win over BC, but the ACC demands great teams have great hair and, honestly, Sam Hartman’s look needs some work.
Who will win: Notre Dame, somehow.
Pac-12 matchup: Oregon Ducks vs. Utah Utes
Keys to the game: After topping Colorado 28-13 on Friday, Utah can rightly claim to be among the hottest teams in the country. It’s too little, too late to make the College Football Playoff, but a Rose Bowl trip would be a nice consolation prize. Oregon has its sights set on Pasadena, too, after escaping Oregon State 38-29 Saturday. This one is likely to come down to whoever’s coach isn’t hired away by a team that isn’t in the Pac-12.
Who will win: The 2021 season had so much potential for Oregon, but there is a price to be paid for playing in the Pac-12 with an ACC transfer at QB. That’s too much bad mojo. Utah wins this. Devin Lloyd scores on a pick-six, then hits up the Bellagio to celebrate, puts all his NIL money on double zero at the roulette wheel, and wins that, too. He’s really good.
Conference USA matchup: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers vs. UTSA Roadrunners
Keys to the game: Bailey Zappe threw for 328 yards and four touchdowns as the Hilltoppers took down Marshall to secure its bid to the Conference USA title game. Meanwhile, UTSA lost its bid for an undefeated season, losing in blowout fashion to North Texas. Zappe has been exceptional all season, including 523 yards and five TDs in a loss to UTSA in their first meeting back in October. This time, however, Zappe has the perfect plan to stop the Roadrunners: Paint a tunnel on the side of a mountain and just watch them plow right into it. Hilarious.
Who will win: WKU has won seven straight, scored 42 or more in six of those games, and really, really would love it if the MAC would invite them to join its conference. Seriously, MAC, don’t make the Hilltoppers sit at the same lunch table as UConn and New Mexico State.
Mountain West matchup: Utah State Aggies vs. San Diego State Aztecs
Keys to the game: Utah State has enjoyed one of the country’s biggest turnarounds this season under first-year coach Blake Anderson. San Diego State is 11-1 despite not having scored an offensive touchdown all season. (We haven’t fact-checked that stat, but it feels right.) First team to 20 wins.
Who will win: There’s no universe in which the football gods allow both Michigan and Brady Hoke to have concurrent success. It’d just be too weird if they showed up to the same awards dinner and had to pretend like they were both happy and there were no hard feelings and, oh, you look really nice in that uniform. How’s your mom? Seeing anyone? No? Oh. That’s interesting. Then, back at the hotel room at 3 a.m., Michigan texts Hoke with a “you up?” and Hoke asks if maybe Michigan just wants to hang out and go over some plays for old time’s sake. Anyway, Utah State wins.
American matchup: Cincinnati Bearcats vs. Houston Cougars
Keys to the game: Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant make for a ferocious secondary, but Houston’s passing attack, led by Clayton Tune, provides arguably the Cincinnati defense’s biggest test thus far.
Who will win: The committee just called the officiating crew from a burner phone it bought at a nearby Buc-ee’s and provided the location of a cache of unmarked bearer bonds that could be theirs if a few calls go the right way.
MAC matchup: Kent State Golden Flashes vs. Northern Illinois Huskies
Keys to the game: Kent State’s ground game is exceptional, and QB Dustin Crum is a savvy veteran. NIU has enjoyed a fantastic turnaround after a dreadful 0-6 campaign in 2020. The Golden Flashes won the first matchup by five in a shootout.
Who will win: NIU QB Rocky Lombardi looks astonishingly like Flash Gordon. The theme song to “Flash Gordon” is awesome. Therefore, NIU wins. We haven’t watched a lot of MAC football. Sorry.
Sun Belt matchup: Appalachian State Mountaineers vs. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Keys to the game: Louisiana escaped rival ULM on Saturday 21-16. App State rolled Georgia Southern 27-3. Both teams had already secured their place in the Sun Belt championship game, however. Louisiana has won the past two against App State, but the difference this time is head coach Billy Napier appears poised for a bigger job — possibly Florida.
Who will win: If the Gators name Napier their next coach, their boosters can wager a hefty sum on App State here, then use the winnings to pay for Napier’s buyout in 2025 after they get angry about losses to Georgia and Missouri.
If it were up to us, the Heisman would go to whichever player would be the most entertaining in future Nissan Heisman House ads. (The answer, by the way, is Jordan Davis. The comedy options here are almost limitless.) Unfortunately, most voters go by things like touchdowns and wins and dreams crushed. We live in a world with very problematic priorities.
1. Alabama QB Bryce Young
There’s a scenario, perhaps, where things go so poorly next week against Georgia that Young doesn’t win the Heisman — and given how the Tide’s O-line looked versus Auburn, that scenario isn’t particularly far-fetched — but at this point, it’s clearly his to lose. One week after salvaging a win against Arkansas with five touchdown throws, Young again rescued his team, albeit with far more pedestrian numbers. The Bama QB was absolutely brutalized by the Auburn pass rush, and yet he was never flustered. He was without his best receiver for most of the game after Jameson Williams was tossed for targeting, yet he put the ball on the money to the receivers who remained. He got virtually no help from his running game, and Young still battled. It’s been an incredible run of QBs at Alabama — from Jalen Hurts to Tua Tagovailoa to Mac Jones — but Young’s season might be the most impressive, if only because his supporting cast is arguably the least impressive.
2. Georgia DT Jordan Davis
There is no statistical case to be made for Davis. There is only this: He’s the best player on the best unit on the best team. But if you insist on putting Nakobe Dean on your ballot instead, well, that’s also an acceptable answer. Or go with c.) All of the Above.
3. Alabama LB Will Anderson
Here’s the defensive player with the numbers to back up the Heisman case. Anderson was exceptional again against Auburn. He had six solo tackles, three for a loss, plus a sack. Anderson now has 29.5 tackles for loss this season. No FBS player has had 30 since 2012.
4. Pitt QB Kenny Pickett
Saturday was probably Pickett’s worst game of the season — and he still threw for four touchdowns in a 31-14 win over Syracuse. For all the gaudy numbers and Heisman moments for the other top contenders, there’s one serious case to be made for Pickett: He’s not had a bad game. He’s had multiple TD throws in every game this season, and he’s finished with at least three TDs 10 times. He’s had 200 yards passing in every game, 300 eight times and topped 400 yards of total offense five times. He’s not had a game with fewer than 22 completions or completed less than 58% of his throws. He’s been remarkably consistent and frequently great. It’s why Pitt has a chance at winning its first ACC championship.
5. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud
He was hardly awful Saturday. Stroud finished with 394 passing yards and two TDs. But what will be remembered, rightfully, is Michigan’s win, and the way Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo consistently harassed Stroud in the pocket. His numbers rival those of any recent Ohio State QB, but against the two best teams he played this season — Oregon and Michigan — his team fell short. Like it or not, that’s part of the Heisman résumé these days.
Under-the-radar game of the week
MACtion is best served on Tuesdays, but Kent State and Miami (Ohio) gave us some exceptional leftovers on Saturday, with a spot in the conference championship game on the line. The RedHawks jumped out to the early lead, 16-7, but Kent State roared back behind tailback Xavier Williams, who finished with 168 yards on the ground and two scores. From there, the two teams traded scores, with Miami marching 80 yards on 17 plays and kicking a game-tying field goal with 4 seconds to play. In overtime, Kent State scored on a 1-yard run by Dustin Crum, and Miami matched, but opted to go for two. Kent State corner Montre Miller swatted away Brett Gabbert’s throw, and the Golden Flashes won 48-47.
Under-the-radar play of the week
Florida State engineered arguably the most painful touchdown drive in college football history late in the fourth quarter of its game against Florida — going 92 yards on 16 plays, including a dumb-luck fumble recovery, six penalties and three booth reviews — and had a chance to win the game if it could properly execute an onside kick. Enter Parker Grothaus doing his impression of me playing tee ball as a kid.
The play is funny enough on its own, but there’s no joke that Twitter can’t make a bit funnier.
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